Saturday, January 14, 2012

lower back

The Lower Back

by Bill Starr
lower back

Whenever I conduct seminars or clinics, I’m frequently asked what part of the body I consider the most important in strength training. My answer: the lumbars – the muscles of the lower back.

The lumbars are the keystones of strength. I also refer to them as the universal joints of the power plant. If your lumbars aren’t strong enough, the power generated by your hips and legs cannot be transferred upward into your back and shoulders. The same idea holds true when power needs to be transferred downward, from the upper body into the hips and legs. The lumbars have to be strong in order to handle the stress.

Strong lumbars are critical to the squat. Quite often trainees’ squats will hit a plateau even though they work the lift diligently and use good form. The problem lies not in their hips and legs but in the lower back. If their lumbars are relatively weak in comparison to their hips and legs, they won’t be able to grind through the sticking point. In addition, their weak lower backs force them to lean forward when attempting a heavy poundage, and that only adds another negative element.

The muscles of the lower back are essential for doing explosive pulling exercises, such as power cleans, power snatches, full cleans and full snatches. You must bring the bar through the middle position dynamically in order to propel it to the finish. If the bar drags through that range, there isn’t sufficient momentum to complete the lift. You also need your lumbars for deadlifts, shrugs and bent-over rows. If they’re too weak, you’ll be unable to hold the correct body mechanics while performing the lift, and, as with the other lifts mentioned, when the bar drags through the middle, the finish is always adversely affected.

Most people who train with weights understand the importance of having strong lumbars for squatting and pulling exercises, but they often overlook their role in overhead lifts. The ability to lock out and hold a heavy weight overhead on the press, snatch or jerk is directly dependent on the strength of the lumbars.

They’re even involved in upper-body movements like the bench press, incline press and curl but to a lesser degree. People realize that when they injure their lower back. In fact, the lumbars are part of every physical activity from walking to heavy lifting, so it’s important to keep them strong.

The fact is, the lumbars are unbelievably strong muscles. On some people they’re like steel cables. Even the average person who doesn’t use them regularly for any form of exercise possesses strong lumbars. When I was a medical corps-man at West Palm Beach Air Force base in the mid-1950s, I had an experience concerning the toughness of those muscles that left a lasting impression on me.

I was volunteered to assist in the autopsy of an airman who had died in a plane crash. The not-so-pleasant task was to remove a part of each vital organ, along with some bone, which was to be sent to a lab and analyzed to determine the exact cause of death. All proceeded according to plan until we tried to get a portion of the spine. The physician in charge wasn’t a surgeon, so he didn’t bring any powerful cutting tools, but we did have some really sharp scalpels and saws. We couldn’t get through the lumbars to the spine. The doctor finally gave up. I knew that rigor mortis was a factor, but still, it was a revelation to my 18-year-old mind. From that day on I’ve made sure that my lumbars get plenty of attention in the gym.

There’s another good reason for maintaining a high level of strength in these muscles, other than helping to improve many lifts. Strong lumbars don’t get hurt as easily as weak ones. In the general, non-weightlifting population eight out of ten adults experience some form of back pain that requires medical attention and often surgery. The majority of those cases involve the lower back.

Those who do lift but neglect their lumbars also have lots of lower-back injuries, which are not much fun. You can’t sit without pain, any movement sends shock waves through your brain, and in severe cases even lying down hurts. Lower-back injuries often force people to curtail training for a while or only do a few movements, and the extreme ones take a long time to heal.

Apart from the pain and loss of overall strength, there’s the economic consideration. I’m Scotch-Irish, that’s a huge consideration for me. Visiting a doctor, chiropractor or acupuncturist can put a massive dent in anyone’s budget, even if he or she has medical insurance. It’s smarter to spend adequate time getting and keeping the lower back very strong. I once stated in an article that I’d never heard of a person having a problem because his lumbars were too strong. “It’s like having too much money or a wife that’s too beautiful,” I said.

Your lumbars should get some attention every time you work out, and that includes before or after you do some type of aerobics. On aerobics days and when you’re not going to hit your lumbars directly with a strength movement, back hyperextensions are excellent. Do them as part of your warmup routine, along with an abdominal exercise. The two movements help warm up your midsection and prepare you for the work ahead. Even if you only plan on doing upper-body exercises, do a set of hypers anyway. Start out with 20 reps, then steadily run the reps up. I generally discourage adding resistance by holding a weight behind your head because it always results in a breakdown of form. When people start to twist and squirm on hypers, they run the risk of hurting the lower back they are trying to strengthen.

Add a couple of reps per week, and in no time you’ll be doing 50. That’s usually enough, but if you decide you need more, then simply do another set or two. At the conclusion of your session throw in another set, or you may prefer doing reverse hyperextensions. They’re also excellent, and the combination of hypers and reverse hypers gives the lumbars a thorough workout in a slightly different manner.

Now for the best lower-back exercise – I call them “tomorrow mornings” for good reason. If you do them correctly, you will always – and I mean always – feel them the next morning. If you don’t, then you aren’t using enough weight.

Good mornings are without a doubt the most hated of all exercises. You may have noticed, however, that the more difficult the exercise, the more productive it is. So it is with good mornings. In order for them to be useful they have to be attacked. Stay in the comfort zone and you won’t gain the desired results. On the plus side, most lifters find that the heavy sets aren’t any more troublesome than the lighter warmup sets. The bottom line is that there really isn’t any way to make this exercise fun or easy. If you’re seeking a non-stressful workout, good mornings won’t fit into your plans, It has been my observation that when people want to get strong – really strong – they don’t mind doing the hard stuff. In fact, they welcome it.

There are three variations of the good morning. You can do them with a flat back, with a rounded back and while seated. I have my athletes try all three and ask them which one got them the most sore. That ‘s the one they should do regularly, but they can do the others occasionally for variety. It’s a simple exercise, but there are some key form points.

To perform the standing rounded-back or flat-back good morning, take the bar from the rack and lock it tightly to your upper back. That’s necessary because if the bar moves even slightly it will hurt your back, which is sometimes more painful than doing the exercise itself. Don’t let it move at all. Place your feet a bit closer than shoulder width and turn your toes in slightly. Bend your knees, but not too much – just enough that your knees aren’t locked.

The second key form point is to push your feet firmly into the floor before starting the movement. That helps tighten your legs and hips and helps you control the weight better. Now bend forward, leaving your hips in the exact same position they were in when you started. Don’t let your hips drop during the execution of the exercise so it resembles a squat.

How low should you go? The lower the better. I’ve had some athletes, especially females, who could look back between their legs at the bottom position. The lower you can go, the more lumbars you involve. Try at least to place your chest on your thighs. You’ll find that going lower makes the exercise a tad easier than cutting it off. You’ll get a recoil effect when you go low.

Do each rep smoothly and in a relatively slow fashion. Don’t try to rush through the set or get herky-jerky. Reset at the top, make certain your knees are bent and the bar is snug on your back, and then do the next rep. You’ll find that if you do your sets at a quick pace, rather than taking long breaks between them, the good mornings will be a bit easier. Do them right after your squats or other leg exercise. That also makes them easier because you already have blood in your lower back and the area is warmed up thoroughly. Every so often I catch one of my athletes doing good mornings first in his program. They usually do it because all the squat racks are busy. I explain that if they tap their lumbars first they aren’t going to be able to handle much weight on the squat.

The seated version is good for variety and also for anyone who has a knee or ankle injury. The main thing to remember when doing these is to brace your feet solidly on the floor or against an upright on a rack. Otherwise, you’ll tip forward. Try to touch your chin or forehead to the bench. This is the easiest form of the exercise.

The set-and-rep formula is the same for all three versions of the good morning: five sets of eight, with the last set being heavy. How heavy? Your goal should be to do eight reps with 50% of what you can squat. That means someone who squats 400 pounds should be handling 200x8 on the good morning. If you haven’t been doing good mornings at all or have been using light to moderate weights, proceed toward your target number in a steady, unhurried manner. Add five pounds every one or two weeks and you’ll reach your goal in due course. Each week the final set should feel the same: heavy, but not overwhelmingly so.

I learned from the Russian Olympic lifters to limit the good morning to 220 pounds. They found that when athletes used more than 100 kilos they were forced to alter their mechanics to counterbalance the weight and it wasn’t a pure lumbar exercise any longer. I have followed that guideline ever since.

If I have an advanced strength athlete who wants to improve his lumbar strength, I have him do two or three sets with 225. For powerlifters and football players I make exceptions to the rule. I let them go heavy, knowing that they’ll involve many other back muscles along with their lumbars, but that’s okay. Bruce Randall popularized this form of good mornings in the 50’s and it’s an effective strength builder. Two football players at John Hopkins did in excess of 400 pounds.

Once a week is sufficient for most people because good mornings are taxing. I put them in the program on Wednesday, behind the light squats, and since Thursday is a non-lifting day there’s time to recover before the Friday session.

After the good mornings the next best exercise for strengthening the lumbars is the stiff-legged deadlift. It should be called the almost stiff-legged deadlift because no one should pull a bar off the floor with straight legs. It’s potentially dangerous to the lower back and totally unnecessary. A slight bend in the knees doesn’t change the benefits, and it reduces the risks.

Your knees should be bent slightly, the same way they are for good mornings. I also discourage the common practice of standing on a bench while doing these. There isn’t any reason to stand on anything. Simply use 25-pound plated on the Olympic bar and do the stiff-legged deadlifts on the floor. Then you can put your total concentration on the movement rather than having to think about balance. If you want to improve your balance there are better ways to do it.

Whenever I pull lifters down off a bench and tell them to put 25-pound plates on the bar, I invariably get a look that suggests I’m crazy. They may be correct, but not when it comes to this subject. I have them do the first set with 95 pounds so I can teach them the proper form. Then I start adding 25-pound plates, and in four jumps they’ve got 295 on the bar. The smirks go away at that point.

The form is rather simple, but you must adhere to some important points or the exercise won’t work your lumbars as effectively. Use straps. You may not need them for the lighter sets, but you will for the last two. Take a standard overhand grip and move in close to the bar. I mean really close. The bar should be against your legs. CLOSE is the word you want to remember when doing stiff-legged deadlifts. The bar starts close and stays close to your body throughout the movement, both up and down. It stays in contact with your shins, passes directly over your knees and climbs up your thighs; and you should lower the bar in the same manner.

You don’t have to become completely erect. You can stop the bar at mid-thigh, since the lumbars have already done their work by then. Don’t get into the habit of rebounding the plates off the floor. The bottom is the meat of the exercise. When you rebound, the exercise is less productive. Come to a dead stop on each rep, make sure the bar is snug against your legs and then proceed with the next rep.

As for head position, some lifters like to look down, while others prefer looking straight ahead or upward. I think straight ahead is best, but it really doesn’t matter just so long as your head isn’t locked into a rigid position. Your head should be relaxed. Any exaggerated position, either up or down, is stressful to the upper spine.

You have to work the stiff-legged deadlift hard, the way you work the good morning, in order to get the desired results. Yo-yoing up and down with an empty Olympic bar is a good way to warm up your lower back, but it doesn’t build strong lumbars. I have a weight guideline for these also. Your stiff-legged deadlift should be eight reps using 75% of your best squat. That means if you squat 400, your goal for the stiff-legged deadlift should be 300x8. Maybe you won’t get that right away, but in a matter of months you will.

Stiff-legged deadlifts belong on Wednesday for the same reason good mornings go there. Do them right after you squat, and again, it’s a smart idea to move through the sets quickly. Do five sets of eight. Why eight? I want you to get your workload with moderate reps rather than high or low reps. Neither of these exercises should be a strength test. Tens also work, but I generally stick with eights.

I believe the good morning is the better exercise, but many people like to switch around from one to the other for the sake of variety. That’s fine, as long as you don’t drop the good morning permanently. That’s a mistake. So concentrate on bringing your good morning up to your goal, and then do stiff-legged deadlifts for a couple of months or until you achieve your target number. Then, if you like, alternate them every other week.

If you lean on these lower-back exercises and throw in hypers and reverse hypers, you’ll greatly strengthen your lumbar strength. Once you get these lifts moving upward, you’ll immediately notice that all your other lifts are improving as well – and that’s a good thing.

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